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From lending to learning: a journey from mass literacy to personalised learning.

There is a bright future for the public library if it can focus more resources on learning. In a knowledge intensive world the individual's need for informal learning and support of formal learning becomes paramount. The public library, through its community presence, local resource base and professional staff, can support unique modes of learning which make essential contributions to personal fulfilment and a better society. Edited version of a paper presented at the conference 'Learning for all: public libraries in Australia and New Zealand Melbourne 13-14 September'.


My intention is to outline my view of how public libraries can move forward in a positive and progressive manner. Not by championing my book but by championing the purpose of the book--the content of the book, the reason behind the book, the chapter, the page the paragraph, the sentence and the word. Public libraries should move forward by championing knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge. By extension, they should support learning in all its many formats.

This paper sets out various arguments and reaches its conclusion by looking at what futures there might be for the public library.

My local library, Keighley in West Yorkshire, was in 1904 the first Carnegie library to be built in England--imagine the excitement! A local champion of adult education, Swire Smith, received the offer from Andrew Carnegie and immediately put pen to paper to urge his mayor to accept the offer. This is what he wrote, on 8 August 1899
   Dear Mayor,

   I cannot express to you the delight which I feel in
   handing you the enclosed letter from my friend Mr
   Andrew Carnegie, which he has authorised me to
   submit to you.

   No nobler girl has ever been offered to Keighley; for
   a Free Library is the one great thing needed, and so
   long desired, to complete the educational equipment
   of our growing town. And when we consider that
   this magnificent offer has come unsolicited, and that
   we have no claims on Mr Carnegie's generosity, I
   am sure that you and the Town Council, as
   representing the people of Keighley, will accept it
   with unbounded enthusiasm, and with gratitude only
   equalled by the kindness of heart that has prompted
   Mr Carnegie to confer such a blessing upon our

   Believe me, Dear Mr Mayor,
   yours sincerely
   Swire Smith

Withdrawing the book from the library

The urgent debate about public libraries should not just concern itself with the cost effectiveness of lending books or of keeping dilapidated buildings open. No, it is of far greater importance. For the people of a democracy it cuts to the core choice--whether they want a society based on individuals as consumers or whether the social glue of community and culture, supported by a network of libraries, offers them a brighter future.

In the eyes of many the book as an object is seen as the elementary or fundamental unit of the library and so it is often the case that in answering questions about the public library one is distracted by the book or tempted into an argument about the future of the book in competition with the rise of technology and other media formats. Of course we all know that there is a wider function to the public library. That has been demonstrated by the many excellent papers that have been presented over the past couple of days and the debates that we have followed during this conference. For a sense of completeness and context readers should refer to these papers to support or to challenge some of my own assertions.

So my first point really is to separate, or if you will excuse the pun, to withdraw the book from the library. This enables the debate to discuss the library as a service rather than a physical collection. My thesis is that one of the many roles of the public library should be around offering strong support for learning. Indeed the assertion comes from the title of my book From lending to learning--the development and extension of public libraries. (1) I do tend to focus my arguments here on informal learning but this in no way is to detract from the work done by public libraries in supporting a wider range of learners--for example school students. Indeed, I often quote the findings of the public enquiry into the proposed closure of libraries in the Wirral in the north west of England where the argument that won the day and ensured the libraries' future, was based on homework clubs and the future educational support of children. My main experience has been working with adult informal learners.


I set out to do three things

--to interpret the wider background and issues effecting the public library and education

--to explore ways in which learning can be understood within public libraries

--finally to suggest approaches that might be useful to the public library of the future.

I do this not just from the perspective of someone who, having worked in public libraries for 20 years and who is to his core committed to principles of free and open access to knowledge and literature--but also as someone who has worked on various learning initiatives and who has for the past six years worked in a highly diverse but formal educational setting. In addition to this I bring a perspective of a researcher who from a social justice perspective has evaluated a number of projects. Research and the validity of research is very much at the heart of this discussion.

Setting the sociopolitical and educational scene

I set the scene by presenting a view of the public library within the wider context of the sociopolitical environment and also to open up a view of the current issues within education. My argument, which is for a future of the public library to be based on far greater support for learning, needs to take account of the current state of education and learning. I have argued that the public library, and more precisely the professional bodies that represent its interests, have been slow to seize the opportunity to assert public libraries in the world of learning. I would now extend this to argue that the world of learning or at least education is itself immersed in a transformation. That transformation is perhaps best illustrated in Martin Trow's 2010 book on higher education Twentieth century higher education elite to mass to universal. (2) Mass education today with huge numbers of young people graduating is not some inevitable consequence of social mobility--it is part of a deliberate policy. It is based on an economics that requires competition in a globalised jobs market, a byproduct if you will of the knowledge economy.

The knowledge economy, welcomed by the library profession and fuelled by information and technology, has seen a move towards an invigorated capitalism. As we look back to events at the close of the 20th century the fall of the Berlin Wall and the electronic trading of bonds, shares and currencies on a global stock exchange that never closes, we see massive change. A consequence of this knowledge economy relates to a growing complexity of technology which in turn requires higher levels of skills and knowledge.

The term usually used for this economic movement is of course neoliberalism--in Australia the equivalent term is economic rationalism. And while definitions of these terms continue to be disputed what I am trying to underline is the move to an emphasis on the market, on performance and on the rise of managerialism. The intellectual capital produced by one country in terms of its high level graduates is set against that of competitor countries. This has come to be known as the global auction and it forms the title of a book by Brown, Lauder and Ashton. Their argument, which emerges on the back of the global recession of the last three or four years, relates to a crisis of the global auction and the notion of the opportunity trap rather than the previously used term, the opportunity bargain.
   The vast chasm between middle class aspirations
   and the realities of the global auction reflects an
   explosion in education and know how and the
   growing capacity for hi tech work in low cost
   locations. The rise of digital Taylorism involves the
   translation of various forms of knowledge work into
   working knowledge that can be digitally distributed
   worldwide. (3)

A new approach, a shift in thinking about the structure of education--for example the relationships and arrangements for scholarly communication between the university, the publisher, the academic author and the student--is beginning to take shape. The traditional pedagogy based on the power relation inherent in the ownership of knowledge is under threat and this provides the university with its ultimate challenge.

The relationship between the university and the knowledge economy is, according to Peter Scott, less well understood than it should be
   The relationship between the development of mass
   higher education and the emergence of a knowledge
   society, and a new global economy, is of crucial
   importance but poorly understood, in both
   theoretical and empirical terms. The more intense
   and direct this relationship becomes, the more
   complex--and at times contested. (4)

If formal education itself can be seen to be in a state of flux this may provide an opportunity for informal deregulated education and a more personalised learning option. The rise and rise of technology has bounced the academic world into all sorts of new configurations and the ubiquitous use of networked learning has undermined some of the values most cherished by the university. From an academic librarianship view point rather than that of a public librarian, this challenge of technology appears to have raised many new opportunities. I will come back to this later when I talk about information literacy. Most importantly for academia, though, is the fact that technology has shifted the locus of control over knowledge and learning from the college or university into the hands of the learner. When it comes to learning in the near future a more personalised approach will dominate.

Research and performance

Research plays an important part in the discussion of public libraries. This is because the search for the bottom line in public libraries--something that is an imperative of managerialism and is a hallmark of neoliberalism, is often expressed in the terminology of research. The evidence based approach to research informed policy making is in the ascendency. This form of policy making based on evidence makes claims of being neutral and economically efficient. Such claims are strongly challenged by academic researchers, particularly those who see the research process being exploited for political ends. It is of course highly quantitative and seeks to justify policy--for example the closure of a public library based on declining loans. This should be set against the stronger argument, yet often qualitatively based, that rates of literacy amongst adults should ensure that more public libraries are opened.

In From lending to learning I argue that rather than this narrow interpretation of a complex social issue, a range of research methods should be employed. For example my own research is based on observer participant methods and in fact as library workers we all have some claim to this position. The position and values of the researcher are extremely important. As chair of the library and information research group (Lirg) and also as someone engaged in doctoral research at the University of Sheffield into the future role of academic libraries, I believe practitioners ie those at the chalk face, should be encouraged to reflect more critically on their roles and the benefits of their daily work. Too often in assessing public libraries this is something that is missing. Within this general enthusiasm for performance monitoring, the strategy of continuing to lend books and other materials and attempting to measure the performance of this activity is setting public libraries up to fail.

This brief exploration of the political and economic environment that underpins formal education provision and, by extension the policy making rationale that covers the public library, allows a couple of assertions. First, one can--with a certain level of confidence--point to a global education concept that has been fuelled by an economic impetus but which, on recent economic evidence, looks like it is floundering. Secondly, a shift in formal education brought about by technology takes authority away from the institution and empowers the learner with opportunities to generate their own contexts. My analysis is perhaps useful to provide a background but of course it raises more questions than it provides answers. The obvious ones being, what examples of libraries supporting learners might we use to convince policymakers, and how should the public library be evaluated in a balanced way?

The learning process

The second objective of this paper is to explore ways in which learning can be understood within public libraries. This quote, which I use regularly, is a way of understanding informal and nonformal learning in public libraries
   I can sit there and it's like a wonderful bag of
   goodies. I'm trying to read all the old Derbyshire
   newspapers from 1785, and it's superb--I know
   things the experts don't! When you're studying for
   qualifications you go in straight lines--now I
   wander. (5)

Of particular interest and what are the significant characteristics of this type of learning are identified by, for example, describing the library as 'a wonderful bag of goodies'. Also, typical of informal learning is the sentiment 'I know things the experts don't!' Finally from this quote the sense that with formal qualifications 'you go in straight lines--now (without direction from a tutor) I wander'. This brings to mind the words of Tolkien 'not all those who wander are lost'.

So what do I mean by learning? Here is a definition that was promulgated by the UK campaign for learning--I find this a very useful definition.
   Learning is a process of active engagement with
   experience. It is what people do when they want to
   make sense of the world. It may involve the
   development or deepening of skills, knowledge,
   understanding, awareness, values, ideas and feelings,
   or an increase in the capacity to reflect. Effective
   learning leads to change, development and the desire
   to learn more. (6)


Assessment and the means of assessment are the key differences between formal and informal learning. The ability of a learner to self assess their own learning is a high level skill and is rarely done successfully. So it is perhaps only natural for a learner to wish to be tested in some way to ascertain if learning has actually taken place successfully.

The following diagram was developed by the UK Museums Libraries and Archives council and illustrates a framework for generic learning outcomes (7)--used to assist the process of assessment of informal learning.

Public libraries and learning

I did some applied research into learning within a community setting that was supported by a local public library. Theorising from this my fellow researchers and I took a renewed look at different types of pedagogies. We found that with the aid of technology, learners were far more self sufficient and able than had first been expected. We also found that the more prescriptive the content of their learning the less engaged they became. Conversely, when the content was dictated by themselves either as individuals or in small groups they remained highly engaged. The important point to understand here is that the level of administration of informal learning required by library staff can in fact be very low. It is essentially a facilitation role rather than a teaching role.

On 3 September I started a course with Princeton University. It is a massive online open course (Mooc) and while it is too early to judge this type of learning delivery it is possible that a merger of this approach with public libraries could present opportunity for self organising groups based on the reading groups model to become associated with the public library. Moreover the ability of institutions to sustain their accommodation in the face of online delivery will in time see many more multiuse buildings.

When I meet up with people who have listened to me talk about learning in public libraries, many of them say 'well, we already do that' or 'we have always done learning' or 'we are the street corner university'--but of course the problem again lies with the administrators and the leisure or education problem.
   One of the many problems encountered when
   providing learning in today's public library lies in
   the perception that the library is already explicitly
   associated with learning. The view that the origins of
   the library were founded on the need to support
   learners in the nineteenth century is indeed true, and
   of course this is evidenced by their evolution from
   mechanics' institutes and also in the growth in
   literacy levels associated with the provision of
   reading materials. However, that type of education,
   supported in the first century of the public library, is
   very different from the learning that should be
   supported by today's library. The problem lies in the
   presumption that today's public libraries, without
   any real effort or cohesive approach, are already
   providing well resourced learning. (8)

So not only should learning be done in the public library but quite clearly learning must be seen to be done and done well by public libraries. Librarians and other public library staff need to be comfortable with the idea that their role is to support learning.

Information literacy

In what might appear to be a digression I would like to look at information literacy (IL) in public libraries, because this as intrinsically linked to learning.

In her 2008 article Jane Harding, in relation to information literacy and the public library, asked the question 'we've talked the talk, but are we walking the walk?' (9) I do not think we are and until we do get information literacy into the psyche of public libraries we will not get learning into public libraries. I am wary of the formal IL paradigms which have invariably evolved from a formal education setting--these simply are not suitable for the public library. Public librarians need to hijack the IL agenda--it was used effectively by academic librarians over the past 20 years to justify their role within the universities--and they need to reshape it to focus more generically on public library users.

A further issue I have with information literacy is that it appears to be based on a process of acquiring quantities of knowledge or facts with which the user can achieve a particular learning goal. This is flawed and represents an outmoded or traditional view of learning--learning is a transformational process that goes beyond acquiring facts.

Speaking in 2009, US President Obama said
   In addition to the basic skills of reading, writing, and
   arithmetic, it is equally important that our students
   are given the tools required to take advantage of the
   information available to them. The ability to seek,
   find, and decipher information can be applied to
   countless life decisions, whether financial, medical,
   educational, or technical. (10)

The abilities to which President Obama refers form the basis of information literacy. There is a job here for public libraries, to embrace the challenge of empowering all citizens to become information literate and to provide them with the tools and skills through which we can ensure a more equitable society.

From mass literacy to personalised learning

The third objective of my paper is to suggest approaches that might be fruitful and here is where I refer to the title of this paper From mass literacy to personalised learning. The basis for the early development of the public library can be seen to be to support mass literacy--a necessity for a new industrial workforce that was required to follow written instruction on the operation of machinery and to do so in an organised fashion. In today's world, while literacy figures are still alarmingly low, we have the explosion of information, availability and access to it.

There is a real opportunity for public libraries to facilitate learning journeys for individuals--there is the potential to provide a high level of personalisation. A nondidactic yet well valued service from the public library provided perhaps in partnership with other agencies, through which knowledge and learning materials can be harvested online and reconstituted as learning journeys.

The public library as education provider is often seen as an honest broker--in marketing terms its brand is strong--and this can and should be exploited. Of course there are thousands of opportunities to support learning and as many problems associated with these opportunities. The solution may be elusive. Yet in many senses, given the wide range of examples we have seen over the past days and even more so the innovative nature of librarianship, we should widen our horizons and think big.

There is, however, an urgent need for the role of supporting learning--particularly informal learning--to be emphasised and given a clear validity within the profession as it moves forward into a new era. Professional development and the training of librarians and other staff needs to be considered in the light of changing service priorities. In short, the question is what skills do library staff need in order to facilitate learning?


There is a bright future for the public library if it can focus more resources on learning. In a knowledge intensive world the individual's need for informal learning and support of formal learning becomes paramount. The public library, through its community presence, local resource base and professional staff, can support unique modes of learning which make essential contributions to personal fulfilment and a better society. Here are three of the things that need to be done

* public library policymakers need to take account of, and understand, the wider learning landscape in order to place libraries in a wider context

* policymakers need to be convinced of the expertise of librarians by providing them with examples of libraries supporting learners

* we need to make the case for information literacy and digital citizenship as a key offer from public libraries.

Currently, UK public libraries are under threat with some closing and many reducing their opening hours. I was recently asked to contribute to a blog published by Voices for the Library (11)--a campaign supporting public libraries. It seems fitting to finish this presentation with the words I wrote then
   The battles fought in every neighbourhood to save
   libraries are clearly not simply about saving books
   or subsidising the reading habits of the middle
   classes. They represent the heart felt cries of
   ordinary people fighting for their right to
   information, learning and culture. Nor can the
   closure of public libraries just be seen as a threat to
   reading, for it represents ultimately a threat to one of
   the few remaining assets of a neighbourhood, part of
   the ripping asunder of the fragile fabric of so many
   communities. Ultimately, and more ominously, it
   symbolises an attack on the freedom of
   individuals. (12)


(1) O'Beirne, R From lending to learning: the development and extension of public libraries Oxford, Chandos 2010

(2) Trow, M and Burrage, M Twentieth century higher education: elite to mass to universal Baltimore Md, Johns Hopkins University Press 2010

(3) Brown, P, Lauder, H and Ashton, D The global auction: the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes New York, Oxford University Press 2011 p147

(4) Scott, P Higher education and the transformation of society, in Peterson, P, Baker, E and McGaw, Beds International encyclopedia of education 3rd ed Oxford, Elsevier 2010 pp370-376

(5) Proctor, R and Bartle, C Low achievers: lifelong learners: an investigation into the impact of the public library on educational disadvantage Library and Information Commission research report 117 Sheffield UK, Ceplis 2002

(6) Campaign for learning 2001

(7) Generic learning outcomes http://www.inspiring

(8) O'Beirne op cit p9

(9) Harding, J Information literacy and the public library: we've talked the talk, but are we walking the walk? Australian library journal 5(3) 2008 pp274-294

(10) Obama, B National information literacy awareness month--a proclamation The White House 2009 accessed 5 October 2009

(11) Voices for the library http://www.voicesforthe

(12) O'Beirne op cit

Ronan O'Beirne Director Learning Development Bradford College UK

Ronan O'Beirne is director of learning development and research at the UK's largest college, Bradford College, where he has responsibility for libraries and research. He is actively involved in the library profession; formerly as councillor of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip) and currently as the chair of the national Library and Information Research Group. In 2009 he was awarded the UK National Information Literacy practitioner of the year award for work on information literacy in public libraries which he carried out in collaboration with Imperial College, London. Ronan has spent 20 years working in public libraries at all levels and in 2010 his well reviewed book From lending to learning," the development and extension of public libraries (Chandos, Oxford) was published. Address: Bradford College Great Horton Road Bradford West Yorkshire BD7 lAY UK email
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Author:O'Beirne, Ronan
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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